At 50, the UN appeared to be facing a middle-age crisis. Then I was Foreign Minister of a re-emerging Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) with the opportunity to stand in and symbolize the survival of a country still seized by genocide and aggression and where many thought it would not survive the onslaught from outside and within. (See: 50 Year UN Commemoration Photo of Sovereigns, Prime Ministers & Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey -- on left near to President Tudjman of Croatia and President Berisha of Albania.) The conflict in BiH had exposed the cracks beyond the face of aging buildings at the UN (renovated since). However, the frailty may be beyond the facade and has now set into a chronic ailment that may be irreversible?
Chronic Failure or Tested by Transition?
The failings of the UN in BiH, Rwanda and other challenges in the mid-1990s were believed largely to be linked, if not caused, by the transitions which came with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its orbit. Yugoslavia was also shattering. However, there were also hopeful expectations. New democracies were emerging. South Africa was freeing itself from Apartheid. Much of Latin America was transforming from dictatorship to democracy, even if still wobbly on its feet in some states. The challenges of the previous decade appeared even more damning by comparison, from famine that killed millions in the Horn of Africa, to the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, to potential nuclear conflict dangling over all global citizens, as if a condemned earth was awaiting the executioner's sword. So much of the suffering and chaos seemed arbitrary, but once beyond the transition it was thought that the "new world order" would deliver a new page in the history of mankind. The betrayal of and subsequent genocide in Srebrenica in that summer of 1995 under the watch of the UN and presumed protection of NATO appeared as a wake-up call, much like the Holocaust and murderous war of a half-century earlier. We dared hope that "never again" had resonance again beyond the immediate birth of such terms of ethics and legality.
However, the last two decades have proven that the failings have been rooted beyond transition, perhaps something deeper or more chronic. The forces of despotism have re-emerged as strong, from Myanmar ("Silence to Genocide"), to Ethiopia (and much of the Horn of Africa) to ISIS; and democracy is vulnerable from Venezuela to Burundi. ("Burundi, Politics of Ego and Not Ethnicity"). Putin's Moscow seeks to reassert an imperial Russia within the realm of the zombie presence of the USSR -- ("Construction According to Putin's Model"). Even when clothed in the fashion of capitalism, absolute regimes as in Beijing have not yet transitioned to free societies or free markets. Srebrenica remains in the grip of those who committed the genocide rather than a more inclusive Bosnia which still awaits the rhetoric of legality to take wings toward reality.
Ready for Retirement?
So, should we pronounce the UN a failure, or perhaps give it a ceremonial gold watch and retire it? The UN and its adjunct organs and agencies have made much progress, before the 50th Anniversary, but also since. The fight against many diseases, including HIV/AIDS has vastly benefited from the UN's leadership, diplomatic and/or operational. Environmental damage and climate change are by no means tackled but at least there is a shared platform for dialogue, and perhaps concrete measures. Human rights has been elaborated and enhanced to include freedom from hunger, "Food Justice" to the "Right to Education". We are just starting to find common ground on Animal welfare/rights.
The failures are perhaps more visible, regardless of the UN's overall utility or fault. Ukraine burns and Syria descends, largely because of the lack of will of one or more of the UN Security Council (UNSC) veto wielding powers to effectively tackle, perhaps because they are directly provocateurs or indirectly acting through agents. The Palestine/Israel conflict remains as diplomatically divisive, and even more depressing, immune to the rule of law as well as lacking in good faith from key political leaders.
The emergence of the International Criminal Court (ICC) stands out as a big hope for most global citizens but also presents a void when it comes to membership, where the US as well as Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and China exclude themselves from its treaty and authority. The UNSC has assumed the right not only to refer cases to the ICC but to also defer its prosecution. However, having failed to address its primary responsibility to secure "international peace and security," should the UNSC be allowed to also block the rule of law? The failure to refer Syria, particularly the Assad Regime, to the ICC has provided fertile ground for ISIS and its draconian ideology to rise, and now spread beyond that state's and region's borders. (Read my Assessment from over two years earlier: "Is UN Failing Syria & the Rule of Law...?"
Thinking Young at 70!
If not retire the UN, then maybe at least limit its activities to those that have a largely humanitarian and non-political context, from aid for refugees to preserving biodiversity. However, many if not most of today's ecological and humanitarian disasters have at their root a man-made cause. If you want to provide a remedy, diplomacy must at least begin to address the cause. Further, most of these conflicts and calamities no individual state or even regional organization wants to address. If anything, the UN is at least a convenient door at which to drop off those orphaned challenges that no one else really wants to assume as responsibility -- and the big powers are the most guilty of blaming the UN when in fact the failure is with them as discordant UNSC members.
Perhaps we can argue that the UN is just too old, beyond its prime and time. When I had the honor to represent BiH at the 50th Anniversary, I was not yet 40. Two decades later I have learned to think younger now, and I do believe the UN as an institution is similarly adopting the new opportunities. It is engaging global audiences with a more fresh approach, at least where it is not saddled with the static UNSC. Today's diplomacy speaks with a new language. Digital diplomacy has opened new avenues; and art, music, film, culture speak directly to the global citizen, the true constituency. Today's diplomat may not be one, but he/she must perform their function with the sensibility of an artist. The UN is not seen as old by most of the younger generations. They see it more present in their lives via programs and symbolically through an impressive list of goodwill ambassadors, male and new female, established and rising stars, or more accurately Diplomat Artists. (Read more about Diplomat Artists.) The ideal of the UN is ever more considered relevant to the future and needed now.
Accountability with Power:
The UNSC, more accurately its veto wielding powers or "P-5", assume much discretion but there is a lack of complementary accountability. There are several credible initiatives for reform. However, it is not realistic to expect the big powers will yield their veto outright or that the UN can succeed without the globe's most powerful states. Reform will only come in small degrees, but it should emphasize that veto power can only be exercised with accountability, or limited in scope. And smaller states can be culprits as much as the larger. Sovereignty cannot translate to impunity for political leaders and effectively ignore grave violations of international humanitarian law, whether committed against one's own citizens or that of another state. Most critically, the rule of law and particularly the ICC, one of the global communities more significant advances over the last two decades, cannot be stymied by the UNSC and the false premise that justice may undermine diplomacy -- that is old and flawed thinking. Real peace is best secured by a commitment to the rule of law. The new thinking does not translate to erasing the UN but rather a fresh look at the institution and its functioning, including from you/us. However, if you still think the UN is part of the problem then what is the alternative? At 70, the UN is a work in progress, but then so are we and our respective states.
See: Beyonce, Diplomat Artist, Perform at the UN the new Language of Diplomacy